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Engineer promotes nuclear power advantages

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Wednesday August 29, 2001

Touting the resurrection of the commercial nuclear energy industry, Dr. Denis Beller, told a group of 20 people Monday night at UC Berkeley that nuclear power is now safe, clean and affordable.  

Beller, a nuclear engineer and a member of the technical staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory, told the group, comprised mostly of nuclear engineering students, that recent technological advances, safety features and the commitment of the Bush Administration will result in an increase of nuclear-generated energy during the next century. 

The presentation was organized by UC Berkeley engineering student Lance Kim, a member of the Berkeley Student Section of the American Nuclear Society. 

Beller’s claims were challenged by several anti-nuclear activists including retired nuclear engineer Ernest Goitein, who did not attend the presentation, but said on Tuesday that there have been very few advances in nuclear safety in the last 10 years and the industry still has not been able to solve its “biggest problem,” which is how to dispose of the radioactive waste produced by nuclear plants. 

Much of Beller’s hour-long presentation, entitled “The Need For Nuclear Power,” named after an essay he co-wrote with Richard Rhodes for Foreign Affairs magazine, focused on the resurgence of the commercial nuclear industry. 

“There are many people who still think commercial nuclear production died at Three Mile Island and it’s not true,” Beller said. “A nuclear renaissance has begun in the United States.” 

Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pa. was the site of a nuclear power plant accident in March, 1979. During the accident, 700,000 gallons of radioactive cooling water escaped from the reactor system of which 400,000 gallons spilled into the Susquehanna River.  

In addition, an unknown amount of radioactive gasses escaped into the atmosphere, some radioactive material passed through four-foot thick walls and a large bubble of hydrogen formed in the reactive core. Had the bubble ignited, the resulting explosion would have cast large quantities of radioactive material for hundreds of miles. 

The result of the accident was increased public concern and heavier regulation of the nuclear power industry. After the accident, Beller said many anti-nuclear organizations thought the end of the nuclear power industry was at hand. 

But Beller said in his essay that despite the claims of anti-nuclear organizations, the industry is alive and well citing that many nations now rely on nuclear power for a significant percentage of their energy. According to his essay, France generates 75 percent of it energy from nuclear power, Belgium 58 percent, Sweden 47 percent and the United State comes in at 20 percent. 

Beller also criticized other energy sources as environmentally harmful or unreliable. Coal is the worst offender spewing 100 million tons of coal ash, which contains arsenic, mercury and chromium, into the atmosphere each year in the United States alone, he said. 

He also criticized renewable sources of energy such as wind farms and photovoltaic solar technologies as expensive and unreliable. 

“Billions have been spent in research and development and there has been very little benefit,” Beller said. “Solar and wind generated power still represents less than one-half a percent of energy worldwide.” 

In contrast Beller said that the process of producing nuclear energy through nuclear fission does not require the release of any toxins into the atmosphere.  

Goitein, who was awarded the Conservationist of the Year Award by the Peninsula Conservation Center Foundation, argued that Beller glossed over the environmental hazards of mining uranium, which he said has caused birth defects and cancer among the Navaho Indians who lived near uranium mines in Arizona and New Mexico.  

But Goitein said major problem Beller didn’t properly address is the problem of what to do with the 72,100 cubic feet of radioactive waste the 103 active nuclear energy plants produce each year.  

Currently most radioactive waste is stored on-site at nuclear plants. To remedy this situation, the U.S Government has spent $6 billion to create a 70,000-metric-ton nuclear waste depository in Yucca Mountain about 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The facility has not yet been completed and the government has yet to certify the safety of the depository. 

Goitein said the project experienced a setback when Chorine 36, a radioactive isotope that has been present in rain water since atmospheric nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s, was found in the tunnels, which means it is not a sealed environment. He said once the facility is in use it will likely be invaded by water which will become contaminated and seep into the groundwater. 

“The discovery of Chorine 36 means that the Yucca Mountain facility is not a hermetically sealed enclosure as the government would like us to believe,” he said. 

Audience members had mixed reactions to Beller’s presentation. Chemistry major Param Dhillon said she was impressed with the information. “I didn’t know much about the subject before,” she said. “I thought he presented a balanced and convincing argument.” 

Berkeley resident Pam Sihvola said the presentation was unbalanced an pro-nuclear. “I thought it was pure nuclear propaganda,” she said. “It did not go into any type of detail about the decades of negative environmental and health impacts related to nuclear power production.” 

Nuclear engineering and chemistry major Charles Yeamans said the presentation contained some good information but thought Beller glossed over a lot of information that should have been presented in more detail. 

“At one point he used the word ‘cavalier,’ which I thought described some of the presentation.”